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Alumnus returns from Arctic Ocean adventure

By Aleta Mayne on September 5, 2012

Paul Ridley ’05

The epitome of culture shock may be going from spending 41 days in a rowboat to dancing with Eskimos in a native Alaskan village to walking through Grand Central Station — all within 30 hours. That’s how the beginning of last week played out for Paul Ridley ’05, who recently completed Arctic Row, a first-of-its-kind rowing expedition, with three other men.

On August 26, Team Arctic Row pulled into a rocky beach on Point Hope, Alaska, and set a number of ocean-rowing records. They had shoved off of the shores of Inuvik, Canada, on July 17 to embark on the first nonstop, unsupported row across the Arctic Ocean. The team’s intended destination was Provideniya, Russia, a 1,300-mile distance that they hoped to cross in approximately 30 days. However, some very serious, unforeseen circumstances threatened not only the completion of the expedition, but also the men’s safety.For one, “it turned out that this summer was the most unusual year weatherwise that anyone can remember,” Ridley said, based on conversations they had with town elders in Alaska and nationally published commentary by scientists.

Shortly after reaching the halfway point, Ridley and his teammates were forced to hunker down in a lagoon near Barrow, Alaska, for seven days due to a weather pattern that the New York Times described as a “powerful and rare summer storm, which is churning the Arctic Ocean’s already thin and reduced sea ice cover.”

The weather didn’t let up there. Several days after they rowed away from Barrow, another storm tied them up in Point Lay, Alaska, for three days. Then, a third storm hit them in Point Hope, where they anchored for six days.

Supplies were low and realities were setting in. The team had been rationing their food since the first storm, going from eating three meals and several snacks a day to only having half a candy bar for breakfast, half a candy bar for lunch, and one hot meal at night.

Time was also running out as the men’s visas and sailing permissions for Russia were set to expire at the end of August.

When Ridley and his teammates got word from their sponsor Weather Routing Inc. that the forecast looked dire, reaching Russia no longer seemed like a reasonable — or responsible — goal. “They said that unless we were going to be there a couple more weeks, we weren’t going to be able to move,” Ridley explained. “The weather report and the looming fall storm season made it clear to us that, unfortunately, we weren’t going to be able to go any further.”

After rowing more than 1,000 miles total, the team had to call it a day. They headed toward the nearest town, Point Hope, where they were warmly greeted by the native Tikigaq townspeople with a celebration, a feast of whale meat (a main part of the local diet), and warm beds.

Having earned the title of the youngest American to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 2009, Ridley isn’t a first-timer when it comes to dangerous expeditions.

For his 2009 Row for Hope, Ridley raised $150,000 toward cancer research in honor of his mother. During this summer’s row, Ridley and his teammates helped two University of Alaska Fairbanks professors conduct research to shed light on the Arctic ecosystem.

And, like Row for Hope, Arctic Row endured a series of unfortunate events — including a broken water maker, which also happened when Ridley was on the Atlantic.

Ridley and his teammates didn’t reveal all of their harrowing events in their daily blog, for fear of worrying their readership of family, friends, and well-wishers. But, they have more than 30 hours of the expedition on film and are currently shopping the documentary, Into Thin Ice, to investors and production houses.

“We were initially worried that the film would be really boring — just showing a lot of rowing — but the simple way to say it is, it’s going to be worth watching,” Ridley said.



  • David Feinbloom said:

    Stephen, we’re all friends here, right? Why do you generalize and assume that all cruise ships are “floating buffets” and dump their waste at sea? While I’m sure Sven Olof Lindblad and National Geographic can do a better job of defending their honor and policies, I saw nothing to indicate a lack of respect and care for the fragile environment we visited. And I doubt new laws will do anything to increase their commitment. Have you heard of AECO (Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators)? The contents of its website –http://www.aeco.no/ — might make interesting reading.

    I hope Paul joins the discussion here, so we can hear more directly from him about his team’s expedition.

  • stephen conn '64 said:

    One more post on Alaska. The largest Eskimo population is Yupik and not Inupiat, as in Canada. Any Colgate alum who wants to learn more about Alaska and the day to day life of Alaska Natives is welcome to become my friend on Facebook where I maintain daily contact with people from all over. They document subsistence activities from whaling to berry gathering, both happy and sad events, and thoughts and views on their situation. I am always learning something new from my 1900 plus friends in Alaska and you can too. Just look for me as Stephen Conn and I’ll hook you up. Come up and experience the Great Land and its peoples.

  • stephen conn '64 said:

    Although I use the correct ethnic name because I know them- Inuit, Inupiat, Yupik, etc., Alaskan indigenous peoples don’t yet view Alaskan native or Eskimo as racial slurs. Canada is different. Also cruise ship and other heavy transport in the Arctic is bad for the Arctic. Where does the floating buffet dump its waste? The law has not caught up with environmental changes that endanger the Arctic.

  • David Feinbloom said:

    Stephen, if you spent 34 years in Alaska then you know a cruise between Seward and Vancouver is not in the Arctic (for the record our cruise originated and ended at Longyearbyen, Svalbard). My point, with which I think you’ve already agreed, is that the Arctic beckons those who have been there to return. I’m looking forward to being taken back, if only vicariously, by Paul’s film.

  • Robert Marengo said:

    Unless I am badly mistaken, “Eskimo” is felt to be a pejorative, even racist, and at very least politically incorrect name by the native peoples of Alaska. Their language is Inuktitut and the people call themselves “Inuit”. Any native Alaskans (or anyone else) in the Colgate community are welcome to correct me.

  • stephen conn '64 said:

    There is a bit of a difference between rowing to Barrow and Point Hope and the cruise ship between Seward and Vancouver.
    I spent 34 years in Alaska as a professor and as executive director of Alaska Public Interest Research Group. It gets under your skin.

  • David Feinbloom said:

    Brave undertaking and great achievement. Having visited the Arctic this summer with my family (aboard a cushy cruise ship) and already looking forward to returning there someday, I would not be surprised to read about your rowing there again. Good luck, and thanks for sharing your experiences.